There are only two medieval structures in North America. Now a third is nearing the end of restoration in the small agricultural town of Vina, California, 100 miles north of Sacramento. It’s the 12th century Chapter House of Santa Maria de Oliva, a Spanish monastery that stood near Madrid. This building’s round the world journey makes an interesting tale.
The monks began their day in the Chapter House, where a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide to monastic living, was read and interpreted. This went on through the centuries until 1835, when the Spanish government closed all small monasteries and seized their lands. Santa Maria de Oliva was sold to a wealthy family that used the Chapter House to store farm equipment.
In 1931, William Randolpf Hearst bought the Chapter House for $285,000, intending to use the stones in the interior of a house he planned near Mt. Shasta. All the stones were marked for reassembly, and sent to California on 11 separate ships. The depression and WWII delayed Hearst’s plan, and in the end he donated the stones to the City of San Francisco to erect a Medieval museum in Golden Gate Park. This never happened and the stones lay outdoors in the park. Many were damaged, lost, or used for other projects
Meanwhile, the Cistercian Abbey of New Clarvaux was founded in Vina in 1955, and the first abbot began to make inquiries. In 1994, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gave the stones to New Clarvaux with the stipulation that reconstruction begin in 10 years and the completed Chapter House be open to the public.
I first went to New Clarivaux in 1998 to stay for a few days at their retreat facilities. It’s an amazing place to unwind, and I have been there a number of times, so I saw the foundation of the Chapter House laid in 2001.
I had not been there recently, however, so when I drove up this past weekend, I found the structure was almost done – almost meaning another 18 months in a 10 year effort. Only 40% of the original stones were usable. The rest had to be repaired or replaced by stonemasons the abbey employed (they’ve raised $6.3 million to date, largely through small donations from across the country).
Master stonemason, Frank Helmholz, left Vina in November, bound for Luxor, Egypt, where he will spend the winter restoring a 3,400 year old temple. He plans to return to Vina next May. In an interview for the abbey newsletter, Helmholz said:
“In this modern age when everything is done fast and often doesn’t last long and serves no higher purpose, carving stones is a bit of a refuge. To create something that takes patience, dedication, and is lasting is very rewarding. And serving the monks in their spiritual lives gives a greater sense of meaning that is rare nowadays…to be part of something that has a higher purpose than one’s own comfort is inspiring in whatever form it takes.”
The abbey newsletter points out another significant point in the life of the Chapter House. It was built by Cistercians in Spain. Now it stands in another Cistercian abbey in the land that once was called New Spain. The stones have finally come home.
I have only alluded to the retreat facilities at New Clairvaux. In addition to nut crops and a vineyard, it’s one of the ways the monks earn their living, and it’s a marvelous place to spend some time apart. I will post about it later, but meanwhile, you can follow the link below for a summary.